Darwinism Essay Topics

There are a wide range of possibilities for opening discussion and essay writing on Darwin’s correspondence.  We have provided a set of sample discussion questions and essay questions, each of which focuses on a particular topic or correspondent in depth. The sample essay questions are designed to help students start researching and writing an essay that centres on Darwin’s letters, narrowing the field to a specific exchange of fruitful and feasible letters from the hundreds of documents on a very general issue. These lists are by no means exhaustive, but it should help to give a sense of the range of possibilities and what makes for a good topic.

General Discussion Questions

  • Why was correspondence so important for Darwin?
  • How did Darwin encourage people he did not know to write to him?
  • How do people address one another in the correspondence?
  • What kind of scientific material did letters contain?
  • How much knowledge does Darwin assume when he writes to different people?
  • What sort of things could one say in a letter that could not be said in print, and vice versa?
  • Did social differences, such as gender and class, matter in scientific exchange?
  • What does Darwin do when he wants to introduce a potentially controversial topic?
  • What reasons did people have for writing to Darwin?
  • How was friendship established through correspondence, and what roles could friendship play in science?
  • Was Darwin’s use of correspondence unusual in the 19th century?
  • How does nineteenth-century correspondence differ from discussions on the internet today?

Essay writing

  • How was Darwin’s early species theory discussed between friends? [J. D. Hooker (1845-6)]
  • What ethical implications did readers draw from Darwin’s theories?[Mary Boole (1864), F. E. Abbot (1871-4), John Fordyce (1879), William Graham (1881)]
  • How did Darwin act as a mentor in science? [John Lubbock (1854-6), John Scott (1861-4), William Darwin (1864-6)]
  • Who counted as a ‘real scientist’ for Darwin? [Treat, Becker, or William Tegetmeier, as compared with, e.g., Asa Gray]
  • Did sex matter in Darwin’s scientific exchanges? [Lydia Becker, Emily Pfeiffer, Mary Treat, J. D. Hooker, T. H. Huxley]
  • What was Darwin’s influence on experimental practice? [John Scott and sexual dimorphism (1862), Fritz Müller and climbing plants (1864), Hermann Müller and the adaptations of insects to flowers (1867), Francis Galton on inheritance theory (pangenesis) (1870-1)]
  • How did Darwin involve his family in his research? [Henrietta Darwin (1870-71), William Darwin (1863-4, 1870), George Darwin (1870-71)]
  • Was Darwin’s attitude to his children influenced by their sex? [Henrietta Darwin, William Darwin, George Darwin, W. D. Fox]
  • How was Victorian science managed in relation to private or personal life? [Charles Lyell, Emma Wedgwood, W. D. Fox (1830s)]
  • How were more technical disagreements carried out in letters? [Hooker on geographic distribution of species (1864--6 and earlier), Wallace on the selection of sterility (1868), Wallace on sexual selection (1869-70)]
  • How were major scientific controversies handled in correspondence? [Sedgwick (1859), Owen (1859-60), Gray (1861-8), Wallace (1869-70), Mivart (1871-4)]
  • Did Darwin believe in progress? [Lyell (1860, 1881), Hooker (1862), Lubbock (1865), Graham (1881)]
  • How were debates over design in the natural world conducted? [F. J. Wedgwood, Asa Gray, J. F. W. Herschel, Charles Lyell (c. 1860--1)]
  • How did Darwin investigate beauty in nature and human society? [In different human races (David Forbes, 1868, W. Reade, 1870-1) As a product of natural selection, e.g. coloured seeds and fruit (Fritz Müller, 1866)]

—by Asa Gray


The Nation, May 28, 1874

The question which Dr. Hodge asks he promptly and decisively answers: ‘’

Leaving aside all subsidiary and incidental matters, let us consider–1. What the Darwinian doctrine is, and 2. How it is proved to be atheistic. Dr. Hodge’s own statement of it cannot be very much bettered:

‘’ (pp. 26-29).

Now, the truth or the probability of Darwin’s hypothesis is not here the question, but only its congruity or incongruity with theism. We need take only one exception to this abstract of it, but that is an important one for the present investigation. It is to the sentence which we have italicized in the earlier part of Dr. Hodge’s own statement of what Darwinism is. With it begins our inquiry as to how he proves the doctrine to be atheistic.

First, if we rightly apprehend it, a suggestion of atheism is infused into the premises in a negative form: Mr. Darwin shows no disposition to resolve the efficiency of physical causes into the efficiency of the First Cause. Next (on page 48) comes the positive charge that ‘’ maintains that ‘’ As to the negative statement, it might suffice to recall Dr. Hodge’s truthful remark that Darwin ‘’ and that ‘’ In physical and physiological treatises, the most religious men rarely think it necessary to postulate the First Cause, nor are they misjudged by the omission. But surely Mr. Darwin does show the disposition which our author denies him, not only by implication in many instances, but most explicitly where one would naturally look for it, namely–at the close of the volume in question: ‘’ etc. If that does not refer the efficiency of physical causes to the First Cause, what form of words could do so? The positive charge appears to be equally gratuitous. In both Dr. Hodge must have overlooked the beginning as well as the end of the volume which he judges so hardly. Just as mathematicians and physicists, in their systems, are wont to postulate the fundamental and undeniable truths they are concerned with, or what they take for such and require to be taken for granted, so Mr. Darwin postulates, upon the first page of his notable work, and in the words of Whewell and Bishop Butler: 1. The establishment by divine power of general laws, according to which, rather than by insulated interpositions in each particular case, events are brought about in the material world; and 2. That by the word ‘’ is meant ‘’ by this same power, ‘’[VIII-2] So when Mr. Darwin makes such large and free use of ‘’ causes, we are left in no doubt as to the ultimate source which he refers them to. Rather let us say there ought to be no doubt, unless there are other grounds for it to rest upon.

Such ground there must be, or seem to be, to justify or excuse a veteran divine and scholar like Dr. Hodge in his deduction of pure atheism from a system produced by a confessed theist, and based, as we have seen, upon thoroughly orthodox fundamental conceptions. Even if we may not hope to reconcile the difference between the theologian and the naturalist, it may be well to ascertain where their real divergence begins, or ought to begin, and what it amounts to. Seemingly, it is in their proximate, not in their ultimate, principles, as Dr. Hodge insists when he declares that the whole drift of Darwinism is to prove that everything ‘’ ‘’ cries the theologian, ‘’ But, as we have seen, Mr. Darwin does say that, and he over and over implies it when he refers the production of species ‘’ and likens their origination to the origination of individuals; species being series of individuals with greater difference. It is not for the theologian to object that the power which made individual men and other animals, and all the differences which the races of mankind exhibit, through secondary causes, could not have originated congeries of more or less greatly differing individuals through the same causes.

Clearly, then, the difference between the theologian and the naturalist is not fundamental, and evolution may be as profoundly and as particularly theistic as it is increasingly probable. The taint of atheism which, in Dr. Hodge’s view, leavens the whole lump, is not inherent in the original grain of Darwinism–in the principles posited–but has somehow been introduced in the subsequent treatment. Possibly, when found, it may be eliminated. Perhaps there is mutual misapprehension growing out of some ambiguity in the use of terms. ‘’- These are sweeping and effectual words. How came they to be applied to natural selection by a divine who professes that God ordained whatsoever cometh to pass? In this wise: ‘’ Then Dr. Hodge adduces ‘’ to the purport that natural selection denotes the totality of natural causes and their interactions, physical and physiological, reproduction, variation, birth, struggle, extinction–in short, all that is going on in Nature; that the variations which in this interplay are picked out for survival are not intentionally guided; that ‘’ (which Dr. Hodge takes to be the denial of any such thing as final causes); and that the interactions and processes going on which constitute natural selection may suffice to account for the present diversity of animals and plants (primordial organisms being postulated and time enough given) with all their structures and adaptations–that is, to account for them scientifically, as science accounts for other things.

A good deal may be made of this, but does it sustain the indictment? Moreover, the counts of the indictment may be demurred to. It seems to us that only one of the three points which Darwin is said to deny is really opposed to the fourth, which he is said to maintain, except as concerns the perhaps ambiguous word unintended. Otherwise, the origin of species through the gradual accumulation of variations–i.e., by the addition of a series of small differences–is surely not incongruous with their origin through ‘’ or through ‘’- One or both of these Mr. Darwin (being, as Dr. Hodge says, a theist) must needs hold to in some form or other; wherefore he may be presumed to hold the fourth proposition in such wise as not really to contradict the first or the third. The proper antithesis is with the second proposition only, and the issue comes to this: Have the multitudinous forms of living creatures, past and present, been produced by as many special and independent acts of creation at very numerous epochs? Or have they originated under causes as natural as reproduction and birth, and no more so, by the variation and change of preceding into succeeding species?

Those who accept the latter alternative are evolutionists. And Dr. Hodge fairly allows that their views, although clearly wrong, may be genuinely theistic. Surely they need not become the less so by the discovery or by the conjecture of natural operations through which this diversification and continued adaptation of species to conditions is brought about. Now, Mr. Darwin thinks–and by this he is distinguished. from most evolutionists–that he can assign actual natural causes, adequate to the production of the present out of the preceding state of the animal and vegetable world, and so on backward–thus uniting, not indeed the beginning but the far past with the present in one coherent system of Nature. But in assigning actual natural causes and processes, and applying them to the explanation of the whole case, Mr. Dar-win assumes the obligation of maintaining their general sufficiency–a task from which the numerous advocates and acceptors of evolution on the general concurrence of probabilities and its usefulness as a working hypothesis (with or without much conception of the manner how) are happily free. Having hit upon a modus operandi which all who understand it admit will explain something, and many that it will explain very much, it is to be expected that Mr. Darwin will make the most of it. Doubtless he is far from pretending to know all the causes and operations at work; he has already added some and restricted the range of others; he probably looks for additions to their number and new illustrations of their efficiency; but he is bound to expect them all to fall within the category of what he calls natural selection (a most expansible principle), or to be congruous with it–that is, that they shall be natural causes. Also–and this is the critical point–he is bound to maintain their sufficiency without intervention.

Here, at length, we reach the essential difference between Darwin, as we understand him, and Dr. Hodge. The terms which Darwin sometimes uses, and doubtless some of the ideas they represent, are not such as we should adopt or like to defend; and we may say once for all–aside though it be from the present issue–that, in our opinion, the adequacy of the assigned causes to the explanation of the phenomena has not been made out. But we do not understand him to deny ‘’ in Nature. This would be as gratuitous as unphilosophical, not to say unscientific. When he speaks of this or that particular or phase in the course of events or the procession of organic forms as not intended, he seems to mean not specially and disjunctively intended and not brought about by intervention. Purpose in the whole, as we suppose, is not denied but implied. And when one considers how, under whatever view of the case, the designed and the contingent lie inextricably commingled in this world of ours, past man’s disentanglement, and into what metaphysical dilemmas the attempt at unraveling them leads, we cannot greatly blame the naturalist for relegating such problems to the philosopher and the theologian. If charitable, these will place the most favorable construction upon attempts to extend and unify the operation of known secondary causes, this being the proper business of the naturalist and physicist; if wise, they will be careful not to predicate or suggest the absence of intention from what comes about by degrees through the continuous operation of physical causes, even in the organic world, lest, in their endeavor to retain a probable excess of supernaturalism in that realm of Nature, they cut away the grounds for recognizing it at all in inorganic Nature, and so fall into the same condemnation that some of them award to the Darwinian.

Moreover, it is not certain that Mr. Darwin would very much better his case, Dr. Hodge being judge, if he did propound some theory of the nexus of divine causation and natural laws, or even if he explicitly adopted the one or the other of the views which he is charged with rejecting. Either way he might meet a procrustean fate; and, although a saving amount of theism might remain, he would not be sound or comfortable. For, if he predicates ‘’ he may ‘’ that the Duke of Argyll and Sir John Herschel ‘’ the latter of whom is blamed for thinking ‘’ and the former for regarding ‘’: while if he falls back upon an ‘’ endowing matter with forces which he foresaw and intended should produce such results as these contrivances in Nature, he is told that this banishes God from the world, and is inconsistent with obvious facts. And that because of its implying that ‘’ We italicize the word, for interference proves to be the keynote of Dr. Hodge’s system. Interference with a divinely ordained physical Nature for the accomplishment of natural results! An unorthodox friend has just imparted to us, with much misgiving and solicitude lest he should be thought irreverent, his tentative hypothesis, which is, that even the Creator may be conceived to have improved with time and experience! Never before was this theory so plainly and barely put before us. We were obliged to say that, in principle and by implication, it was not wholly original.

But in such matters, which are far too high for us, no one is justly to be held responsible for the conclusions which another may draw from his principles or assumptions. Dr. Hodge’s particular view should be gathered from his own statement of it:

‘’ (pages 43, 44).

Far be it from us to object to this mode of conceiving divine causation, although, like the two other theistic conceptions referred to, it has its difficulties, and perhaps the difficulties of both. But, if we understand it, it draws an unusually hard and fast line between causation in organic and inorganic Nature, seems to look for no manifestation of design in the latter except as ‘’ second causes, and, finally, refers to this overruling and controlling (rather than to a normal action through endowment) all embryonic development, the growth of vegetables, and the like. He even adds, without break or distinction, the sending of rain, frost, and snow, the flight of an arrow, and the falling of a sparrow. Somehow we must have misconceived the bearing of the statement; but so it stands as one of ‘’ and the right way, of ‘’

In animadverting upon this latter view, Dr. Hodge brings forward an argument against evolution, with the examination of which our remarks must close:

‘’ (pp. 45, 46).

If Dr. Hodge’s meaning is, that matter unconstructed cannot do the work of mind, he misses the point altogether; for original construction by an intelligent mind is given in the premises. If he means that the machine cannot originate the power that operates it, this is conceded by all except believers in perpetual motion, and it equally misses the point; for the operating power is given in the case of the watch, and implied in that of the reproductive telescope. But if he means that matter cannot be made to do the work of mind in constructions, machines, or organisms, he is surely wrong. ‘’ vel scribendo; he confuted his argument in the act of writing the sentence. That is just what machines and organisms are for; and a consistent Christian theist should maintain that is what all matter is for. Finally, if, as we freely suppose, he means none of these, he must mean (unless we are much mistaken) that organisms originated by the Almighty Creator could not be endowed with the power of producing similar organisms, or slightly dissimilar organisms, without successive interventions. Then he begs the very question in dispute, and that, too, in the face of the primal command, ‘’ and its consequences in every natural birth. If the actual facts could be ignored, how nicely the parallel would run! ‘’ For an animal to make an animal, or a plant to make a plant, supposes it to select carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen, to combine these into cellulose and protoplasm, to join with these some phosphorus, lime, etc., to build them into structures and usefully-adjusted organs. A man who can believe that plants and animals can do this (not, indeed, in the crude way suggested, but in the appointed way) ‘’ Yes, verily, and so he probably will, in spite of all that atheistical philosophers have to offer, if not harassed and confused by such arguments and statements as these.

There is a long line of gradually-increasing divergence from the ultra-orthodox view of Dr. Hodge through those of such men as Sir William Thomson, Herschel, Argyll, Owen, Mivart, Wallace, and Darwin, down to those of Strauss, Vogt, and Buchner. To strike the line with telling power and good effect, it is necessary to aim at the right place. Excellent as the present volume is in motive and clearly as it shows that Darwinism may bear an atheistic as well as a theistic interpretation, we fear that it will not contribute much to the reconcilement of science and religion.

The length of the analysis of the first book on our list precludes the notices which we intended to take of the three others. They are all the production of men who are both scientific and religious, one of them a celebrated divine and writer unusually versed in natural history. They all look upon theories of evolution either as in the way of being established or as not unlikely to prevail, and they confidently expect to lose thereby no solid ground for theism or religion. Mr. St. Clair, a new writer, in his ‘’ takes his ground in the following succinct statement of his preface:


Of his closing remark, that, so far as he knows, the subject has never before been handled in the same way for the same purpose, we will only say that the handling strikes us as mainly sensible rather than as substantially novel. He traverses the whole ground of evolution, from that of the solar system to ‘’ He is clearly a theistic Darwinian without misgiving, and the arguments for that hypothesis and for its religious aspects obtain from him their most favorable presentation, while he combats the dysteleology of Hackel, Buchner, etc., not, however, with any remarkable strength.

Dr. Winchell, chancellor of the new university at Syracuse, in his volume just issued upon the ‘’ adopts it in the abstract as ‘’ (whatever that may mean), accepts it practically for the inorganic world as a geologist should, hesitates as to the organic world, and sums up the arguments for the origin of species by diversification unfavorably for the Darwinians, regarding it mainly from the geological side. As some of our zoologists and palaeontologists may have somewhat to say upon this matter, we leave it for their consideration. We are tempted to develop a point which Dr. Winchell incidentally refers to–viz., how very modern the idea of the independent creation and fixity of species is, and how well the old divines got on without it. Dr. Winchell reminds us that St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas were model evolutionists; and, where authority is deferred to, this should count for something.

Mr. Kingsley’s eloquent and suggestive ‘’ in which he touches here and there upon many of the topics which evolution brings up, has incorporated into the preface a paper which he read in 187i to a meeting of London clergy at Sion College, upon certain problems of natural theology as affected by modern theories in science. We may hereafter have occasion to refer to this volume. Meanwhile, perhaps we may usefully conclude this article with two or three short extracts from it:


Pronouncing it to be the duty of the naturalist to find out the how of things, and of the natural theologian to find out the why, Mr. Kingsley continues:


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